Making the most of a Winter Westerly
When you paddle the seas off the east coast of Australia, there’s one type of wind that is uninviting, unfriendly, and sometimes dangerous. It’s the dreaded westerly. At best it’s annoying. It usually blows with force - hot, dry, and strong in summer, or intense with a biting chill in winter. It restricts your fun and often waylays your plans. If you venture off the coast, your return is an uninspiring slog. And if you get into trouble, it can quickly blow you out to sea.
This week, our Tuesday evening paddle was preceded by a forecast of 20 to 25-knot westerlies. The swell was projected at 2 to 3 metres from the east to southeast, with an 11-second wave period. So, captain-coach Rob Mercer hoped we could make something out of the ordinary forecast with a surf session on the Bundeena Bar. A moderate to strong nor-east or easterly swell can produce impressive waves in the shallow waters inside the mouth of Port Hacking, particularly as it approaches the famous Bar. To see just how impressive, have a look at Mark Sundin’s video of a past kayak surf session:
Unfortunately for us, the waves weren’t up this day. Maybe the tide was too high, combined with the swell direction being too much from the south. In any event, the surf session wasn’t happening. Johnny Hutch and I launched from Lugano Avenue Burraneer, and paddled across the wind to meet up with Rob who launched out of Bonnie Vale, just west of Bundeena. The westerly was producing nicely formed runners in the river, so we decided to take a ride east for a while. The wind was certainly up. By my reckoning, it was blowing around 20 knots or more. There were plenty of whitecaps foaming on the tops of the rolling waves.
As we neared the mouth of the river, the waves grew and steepened. The greater fetch brought a lot more energy to the water, and it was starting to become a pretty good ride. The wind seemed to have picked up, maybe as it funneled through the entrance. I had done up the strap on my hat tighter than usual, in anticipation of surfing and possible capsize. But not tight enough. At one point it blew straight off, and I just managed to catch it. I stowed it rather than making a futile attempt to secure it back onto my head. I continued to follow Rob and John, both very solid downwind paddlers who were always out ahead of me. It was just a question of how far we were going to take this. It was tempting to keep going, but we all knew the trip back would be very energetic. We ventured a short way out into the open water, then Rob decided the fun was over. It was time to turn and slog it back.
I needed my wits about me for the turn. Once side-on to the charging waves I could feel the blast of the wind, and the combined forces wanting to roll me over. And as I straightened, the relative quiet of the downwind leg was replaced with the true perspective of the force and volume of the wind. It sounded like you’d gone from stepping out of the shower to somebody pointing a hairdryer directly into your face.
The three of us dug in and forced our way back against the oncoming white water. It made for a solid workout. I’ve battled into some 25-knot winds before, but this felt stronger. Checking the obs later confirmed this. At the time we were turning around, it was blowing 28 to 32 knots at Kurnell, and gusting stronger. We made gradual headway, as judged by reference points taken on Jibbon Head. But it was slow going, and there was no time for a breather. Every wave was now full-cream-white on top, with the foam spilling down the face of the wave or slapping you in the face. The waves breaking on Jibbon Point looked impressive, as their tops were whipped off and sprayed 30 metres back out to sea.
We made it inside the river mouth, then headed southwest to find some shelter in Bundeena Bay. We still had over 2km to cover to make it to this rest stop, and the wind wasn’t letting up. According to my Garmen, my average speed heading east had been around 11km/hr. Punching back it was 3 to 4.
On most Tuesdays when we venture out, the wind direction is from anywhere other than the
west, and we can choose to do the hard slog at the beginning, then have fun riding the wind back home. This day was the reverse, and hence why westerlies are usually good for nothing. It kept our paddle short and sharp, and the return leg won’t make the Tuesday highlight package. Yet I could still say it had been worthwhile getting out on the water.
For those who venture out with any paddle craft, but don’t have a lot of experience, it is important to respect the conditions and check the forecast. Be mindful that there are many potential hazards, with the least respected being the wind. It doesn’t have to be very strong to capsize an inexperienced paddler. And a moderate to strong wind will produce waves, even in enclosed rivers. There are many tips and pearls of wisdom that can be bestowed, but the basics are the ones most likely to save your life. Don’t paddle alone when you can avoid it. Don’t paddle at all if you can’t swim. Always wear a lifejacket. Dress warmly enough for the conditions. Make sure somebody knows where you are going. And check the forecast even if you’re just planning a quick trip along the shore.